Leon Trotsky’s Writings on Britain
Volume III

Trotskyism versus Centrism in Britain

The “Marxist Group”
in the ILP

On the question of the ILP, the Secretariat has altered so much of my proposition that it suggests to our British section [1] – if my information is correct – that some comrades should not enter the ILP, so that they can continue publishing the paper. This plan, after a long conversation with Smith [2] (who makes the best impression personally), seems to me of no use. The ILP, and this is to its credit, has expelled two members because they were also members of the Communist Party. The ILP will also distrust us for the same reason. This distrust can only be overcome if our people get into the ILP with the desire to influence the party as a whole and to become powerful there but not to work toward breaking away a small part from the whole party.

The publication of a small, monthly paper under the circumstances is senseless, because the same articles are published at the same time or earlier in The Militant. [3] We can make good use of The Militant as a central organ” for our internal work within the ILP.

Comrade Witte is travelling to Britain [4], and it would be very good if he would discuss and examine the whole question from this point of view with the British comrades.

I am of the opinion, under the given circumstances, that the British section in relation to the ILP must use the tactic applied by the Brandlerite minority toward the SAP. If we only send a part of our membership into the ILP and keep a publication going outside of it, then we are in danger of getting our members expelled from the ILP in a very short time. Our mutual relations would be poisoned by this, and we would lose, because of our outside action, the possibility of gaining considerable influence.

From a letter on The International Left Opposition and the ILP
(dated 3rd September 1933), Internal Bulletin,
British Section of the Left Opposition, 24th October 1933

* * *

Dear Comrades

I have not yet received your letter in which you motivate your negative attitude to the entry into the ILP. But, so as not to delay this matter, I shall try to examine the principled considerations for and against the entry. If it should happen that your letter contains additional arguments I shall write you again.

In its present state, the ILP is a left-centrist party. It consists of a number of factions and shadings that are indicative of the different stages of evolution from reformism to communism. Should the Bolshevik-Leninists enter into the Official Communist Parties, which they had long designated, and with full reason, as centrist organizations? For a number of years, we have considered ourselves Marxist factions Of centrist Parties. A categorical answer – yes, yes; no, no – is insufficient also in this case. A Marxist party should, of course, strive to full independence and to the highest homogeneity. But in the process of its formation, a Marxist Party often has to act as a faction of a centrist and even a reformist party. Thus the Bolsheviks adhered for a number of years to the same party with the Mensheviks. Thus, the Third International only gradually formed itself out of the Second.

Centrism, as we have said more than once, is a general name for most varied tendencies and groupings spread out between reformism and Marxism. In front of each centrist grouping it is necessary to place an arrow indicating the direction of its development: from right to left or from left to right. Bureaucratic centrism, for all its zigzags, has an extremely conservative character corresponding to its social base: the Soviet bureaucracy. After a ten-year experience, we came to the conclusion that bureaucratic centrism does not draw nearer and is incapable of drawing nearer to Marxism, from the ranks of which it emerged. It is precisely because of this that we broke with the Comintern.

While the official Communist Parties have been growing weaker and decomposing, left flanks have separated from the reformist camp, which has grown considerably in numbers. These flanks also have a centrist character, but they move towards the left and, as demonstrated by experience, are capable of development and yield to Marxist influence. Let us recall once more that the Third International originated from organizations of this sort.

A clear example of the above is furnished by the history of the German SAP. A few hundred communists who split off from the Brandlerite opposition and entered the SAP have succeeded in a comparatively short time in placing themselves at the head of this organization, which, for the most part, consists of former Social-Democratic members. At that time we criticized the group of Walcher, Frölich, Thomas [5] and others not because they resolved to enter a left-centrist party, but because they entered it without a complete programme and without an organ of their own. Our criticism was and remains correct. The SAP bears even now traces of shapelessness. Some of its leaders even now consider irreconcilable Marxist criticism as “sectarianism.” In reality, however, if the Left Opposition with its principled criticism had not been standing at the side of the SAP, the position of the Marxists within the SAP would have been incomparably more difficult; no revolutionary group can live without a constantly creative ideological laboratory. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the movement of the centrist party (SAP) to the left was so decisive that the communist group, even without a complete programme and without an organ of its own, found itself very soon at the head of the party.

The history of the SAP is neither a chance one nor an exceptional one. For a number of years the Comintern prevented by its policy the going-over of the socialist workers to the revolutionary road. A mass of explosive material accumulated, therefore, in the camp of reformism. The frightful crisis of capitalism and the triumphal march of fascism, accompanied by the absolute impotence of both Internationals, gave the left-centrist organizations an impulsion towards communism; this is one of the most important prerequisites for the creation of new parties and of a new International.

In the area of theory, the ILP is completely helpless. This gives an advantage to the official Communist Party – herein lies the danger. This opens up the field for the intervention of our British section. It is not sufficient to have correct ideas. In a decisive moment one must know how to show one’s strength to the advanced workers. As fax as I call judge from here, the possibility for influencing the further development of the ILP as a whole is not yet missed. But in another couple of months, the ILP will have completely fallen between the gear wheels of the Stalinist bureaucracy and will be lost, leaving thousands of disappointed workers. It is necessary to act and to act immediately.

It is worth entering the ILP only if we make it our purpose to help this party, that is its revolutionary majority to transform it into a truly Marxist party. Of course, such an entry would be inadmissible if the Central Committee of the ILP should demand from our friends that they renounce their ideas, or the open struggle for those ideas in party. But it is absolutely admissible to take upon oneself the obligation to fight for one’s views on the basis of the party statutes and within the limits of party discipline. The great advantage of the Left Opposition lies in the fact that it has a theoretically elaborated programme, international experience and international control. Under these conditions, there is not the slightest basis for the fear that the British Bolshevik-Leninists will dissolve without a trace in the ILP.

Some comrades point out that the ILP has greatly weakened that behind the old front a ramshackle structure hides itself. This is very possible. But this is not an argument against entry. In its present composition, it is clear, the ILP is not viable. It is getting weaker and is losing members not only on the right but also on the left, because its leadership has no clear policy and is not capable of imbuing the party with confidence in its strength. it is Possible to stop this further disintegration of the ILP only by imparting to it Marxist views on the problems of our epoch, and in Particular a Marxist analysis of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Only the Bolshevik-Leninists can do this work. But to do this they must courageously destroy the wall that divides them today from the revolutionary workers of the ILP. If the apparatus Of the ILP should not admit our section into the ranks of its Party, this would be the best proof that the leadership has completely submitted to the Stalinist bureaucracy behind the back of the party. In this case worst case we would acquire a strong weapon against the leaders and would gain the sympathy of the rank-and file members of the ILP.

It may be objected that the small size of our British section would not permit it to play the same role with regard to the ILP that the group of Walcher-Frölich played with regard to the SAP. Possibly.

But even if the ILP is doomed to disintegrate, the Bolshevik-Leninists; can save for the revolution an important kernel of this party. It must also not be forgotten that the group of Walcher-Frölich was completely isolated, while our British friends can count on international help in their work.

I am very much afraid that our British friends, at least some of them, are restrained from entering the ILP by the fear of malicious criticism of the Stalinists. There is nothing worse in revolutionary policy than to be actuated by purely external, superficial criteria or by the fear of public opinion of the bureaucracy only because we were connected with it in the past. It is necessary to determine one’s road in accordance with the deep currents within the proletarian vanguard, to trust more in the power of one’s ideas without looking back at the Stalinist bureaucracy.

G. Gourov [Leon Trotsky]

Letter to the British Section, Bolshevik-Leninists (dated 16th September 1933),
Internal Bulletin, British Section of the Left Opposition, 24th October 1933

* * *

Dear Comrades,

Comrade Paton of the ILP offered to place my articles on the ILP in the magazine Adelphi. [6] My reply will be clear from the copy of my letter attached hereto.

No doubt you have received the extract from the minutes of the plenum of the International Secretariat from which it is clear that the suggestion to enter the ILP was adopted by the plenum unanimously. I cannot understand who could have supplied you with such false information. At any rate, it was not Comrade Witte, who participated actively in the meetings of the plenum and voted for the general resolution. It is clear, of course, that I am far from the thought that the unanimous opinion of the plenum obligates you to submit to it silently. The plenum adopted not a decision but a proposal. The proposal, however, was considered and discussed very seriously and adopted unanimously.

Comrade Fenner Brockway [7] asked my permission to print in The New Leader an article by Comrade Smith relating my conversation with him. Of course, I gave my approval. Thus you will get an idea of the general nature of my conversation which coincides almost to the dot with the contents of my article sent to you.

I continue to believe that the fate of our British section for the next couple of years depends on a correct attitude toward the ILP. It was Shakespeare who counselled taking advantage of the time of the tides so as not to remain on the strand all life long. [8] With great impatience and concern I am awaiting your final decision in this matter.

Comradely Yours,
L. Trotsky

Letter to the British Section, Bolshevik-Leninists (dated 16th September 1933),
Internal Bulletin, British Section of the Left Opposition, 24th October 1933

* * *

Dear Comrades:

I received a copy of your letter of September 5 and allow myself to express a few additional considerations on the question of entry into the ILP.

1. We do not exaggerate the significance of the ILP. In politics as in the physical world, everything is relative. In comparison with your small group, the ILP is a big organization. Your small lever is insufficient to move the Labour Party but can have a big effect on the ILP.

2. It seems to me that you are inclined to look at the ILP through the eyes of the Stalinist party, that is, to exaggerate the number of petty-bourgeois elements and minimize the proletarian elements of the Party. But if we should estimate that the workers make up only 10 per cent (an obvious underestimation since you ignore the [illegible words]), even then you will get one thousand revolutionary-minded workers, and in reality many more.

3. The jump from a thousand to ten thousand is much easier than the jump from forty to one thousand.

4. You speak of the advantages of influencing the ILP from the outside. Taken on a wide historical scale, your arguments are irrefutable, but there are unique, exceptional circumstances that we must know how to make use of by exceptional means. Today the revolutionary workers of the ILP still hold on to their Party. The perspective of joining a group of forty, the principles of which are little known to them, can by no means appeal to them. If within the next year they should grow disappointed with the ILP, they will go not to you but to the Stalinists, who will break these workers’ necks.

If you enter the ILP to work for the Bolshevik transformation of the party (that is, of its revolutionary kernel), the workers will look upon you as upon fellow workers, comrades, and not as upon adversaries who want to split the party from outside.

5. Had it been a question of a formed, homogeneous party with a stable apparatus, entry in it would not only be useless but fatal. But the ILP is altogether in a different state. Its apparatus is not homogeneous and, therefore, permits great freedom to different currents. The revolutionary rank and file of the party eagerly seek solutions. Remaining as an independent group, you represent, in the eyes of the workers, only small competitors to the Stalinists. Inside the party you can much more successfully insulate the workers against Stalinism.

6. I believe (and this is my personal opinion) that even if you should give up your special organ you will be able to use to advantage the press of the ILP, The New Leader and the discussion organ. The American Militant as well as the International Bulletin could well supplement your work.

7. Should all the members of your group enter the ILP? This is a purely practical question (if your members who work inside the Communist Party of Great Britain have a wide field for their activity, they can remain there longer, although I personally believe that the useful effect of their work would be, under the present conditions, a few times greater in the ILP).

8. Whether you will enter the ILP as a faction or as individuals is a purely formal question. In essence, you will, of course, be a faction that submits to common discipline. Before entering the ILP you make a public declaration: “Our views are known. We base ourselves on the principles of Bolshevism-Leninism and have formed ourselves as a part of the International Left Opposition. Its ideas we consider as the only basis on which the new International can be built. We are entering the ILP to convince the members of that party in daily practical work of the correctness of our ideas and of the necessity of the ILP joining the initiators of the new International.”

In what sense could such a declaration lower the prestige of your group? This is not clear to me.

Of course, the International Secretariat did not intend to and could not intend to force you by a bare order to enter the ILP. If you yourselves will not be convinced of the usefulness of such a step, your entry will be to no purpose. The step is an exceptionably responsible one; it is necessary to weigh and consider it well. The aim of the present letter, as well as of the foregoing ones, is to help in your discussion.

With best comradely greetings,
L. Trotsky

Letter to the British Section (dated 2nd October 1933),
Internal Bulletin, British Section of the Left Opposition, 24th October 1933

Volume 3, Chapter 2 Index


1. After their expulsion from the CPGB in August-September 1932, mainly for their opposition to the Amsterdam conference’s policies, the so-called “Balham Group” formed themselves into the “Communist League” and in May 1933 began to produce the Red Flag. At this point the group began to discuss Trotsky’s suggestion that they should enter the ILP and though by the end of the year only a minority agreed they nevertheless proceeded to do so.

2. The interview reported in extract 27.

3. The first paper ever produced in English by the Trotskyist movement, and the one with the greatest continuity. It began as a twice-monthly in November 1928, shortly after the expulsion of Cannon, Shachtman and Abern from the CPUSA, and was. published in New York.

4. Though not himself Greek, the man who used this name represented the Greek section of the International Left Opposition on the International Secretariat based in Paris. He came to Britain in the autumn of 1933 in part to discuss with Trotsky’s British Supporters the view of the IS that they should enter the ILP and in part to inform Trotsky on the general situation of the left in Britain. Shortly after his return to Paris he came into sharp conflict with Trotsky leading to considerable disruption of the Greek section and not long after to Witte’s disappearance from the movement for good. [Note by TIA: The biographical information in this note is incorrect. “Witte” was the pseudonym of Demetrios Giotopoulos (1901-1965).]

5. These were all Brandlerites who assumed the leadership of the SAP in 1933. The political itinerary of Jakob Walcher is outlined in a previous note. Paul Frölich (1884-1953) later wrote a biography of Rosa Luxemburg; in 1950 he returned from exile in the United States to West Germany, where he joined the Social Democratic Party. Bernhard Thomas, who was of Russian origin, went into exile in Sweden.

6. Founded in 1923 by John Middleton Murry (1889-1957) as a quarterly and published in London. Primarily a literary journal at the outset, from 1932 it took an increasing interest in left-wing politics, particularly those within the ILP, and was one of the few open forums in the period where the Stalinists never managed to prevent the appearance of articles sympathetic to Trotskyism.

7. Fenner Brockway (1888-1988), British socialist and leader of the Independent Labour Party; joined ILP in 1907; editor of Labour Leader, the ILP paper, 1912-16; a militant pacifist during World War I, he was jailed several times; Editor of New Leader, the renamed ILP paper; 1926-29 and 1931-46; Chairman of ILP 1931-33 and General Secretary of ILP (1933-39); member of parliament 1929-31 and 1950-1964.

8. “There is a tide in the affairs of men/ Which taken at the flood leads onto fortune;/ Omitted, all the voyage of their life/ is bound in shallows or in miseries.” Brutus’ speech, Julius Caesar, IV iii 217.

Volume 3 Index

Trotsky’s Writings on Britain

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Last updated on: 1.7.2007